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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Bonfire of the Quavers, 26 Aug. 2013
This review is from: The Reichsorchester (Berlin Philharmonic & Third Reich) (Berlin Philharmonic) (Arthaus: 108059) [Blu-ray] [2012] (Blu-ray)
This 2008 documentary is a masterpiece. You'll forget the world and its petty concerns for its duration. Its beginning will suck the air out of your lungs like a firestorm: accompanied by the transition into the Finale of the Beethoven Fifth (presumably it is the Furtwangler '43 performance Beethoven - Symphonies 5 & 7) cellist Erich Hartman (Berlin Philharmonic, Class of 1943) returns to the site of the Old Philharmonie (now a hideous, bunker-like row of apartments) while Hans Bastiaan (Berlin Philharmonic, Class of 1934) visits the 1936 Olympic Village (still in situ and ghostly at that - the wall-murals bring to mind the Palace of Ashurbanipal). Thereafter, the wider experience of the Berlin Philharmonic under the Third Reich is explored, both through the testimony of survivors and the children of key personnel, be they Jewish or otherwise. One can only hope that Syzmon Goldberg was interviewed before his death in 1991.

There is that Chinese adage: may you live in interesting times. Well, these guys can bear testimony to its power.

The most haunting scene of all is the footage of the cannon-fodder: the teenagers, wounded soldiers (yes, Waffen SS included) and old men in 1945 listening to the slow movement of the Beethoven Fifth. It is a good thing that the scene is not in colour as the mere sight of their eyes in the full panorama would surely turn one to stone like Medusa. Some of them had been blinded. Others have been blasted by shrapnel. Destiny is such a despot; one can sense these poor devils are trying to immerse themselves in this "imperishable music" (Bastiaan's words) in preparation for the Day of Reckoning. And who can begrudge them, these creatures of an hour caught up in a maelstrom not of their making and beyond their strength?

The conclusion is intensity itself: Bastiaan stares at the theatre of the Olympic Village; his eyes are not gazing at anything temporal; their focal point is sixty years distant. The nonagenarian tries to make a comment. Nothing is forthcoming. Oh yes indeed: the rest is silence.

Unless you are a keyboard warrior, I urge you not to judge these guys. We all know that the Berlin Philharmonic was used for propaganda purposes by the Nazis. Did it make any material difference to the war? How many T-34s were knocked out by their concerts? The answer is 'next to nothing'. Agreed: performing the Beethoven Ninth with the swastikas draped nearby is a sacrilege and Goebbels' real name was Legion. But what judgement should befall those rank-and-file members of the Berlin Philharmonic who plied their craft - a noble profession - while the trains rumbled into Auschwitz?

Neither Bastiaan nor Hartman is a hero. Not everyone is born a von Stauffenberg. But nor were these `Average Joes', as we will call then, Nazis in any way. If either of them had kicked up a fuss, they would have been handed over to the Gestapo or sent to the Eastern Front - and to what end? Beset by evil and suffering, the Berliners needed to hear their Bruckner, Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn and Bach. These musicians served their day. They lessened the suffering of good people. Moreover, I would echo the counsel of Schoenberg to Furtwanger: stay in Germany and make good music.

The one semi-criticism I can make of this masterpiece is that scant attention is paid to the conductors - yes, I know, the subject is the Berlin Philharmonic but information on Knappertsbusch, for instance, would have been interesting; he was no Nazi and yet he appeared in many of the PR films.

In short, this documentary is mesmerising stuff. There is nothing you can do today that is more of an imperative than tracking it down. Nor does the Law of Diminishing Returns apply.
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